Jonathan Peña is a first-generation American citizen currently attending Sylmar Biotech Health Academy. As a participant of YPI’s GEAR UP program, Jonathan has received counseling and support to be college-ready, and has also received tutoring from YPI in Math and English. With his hard work, determination and perseverance, the high school junior has been awarded a $20K grant to attend university and will be the first in his family to do so. This is his story.
My name is Jonathan and I’m a kid who has grown up on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley. My parents are from developing countries and migrated to the United States undocumented. They were in their twenties when they came here and they did so with 3 children. I grew up in a Colombian-Venezuelan household and am the youngest of six children now. My parents were constantly working multiple “under the table jobs” to support my brothers and sisters, sometimes coming home so late only to find us sleeping. I remember my father walking six to seven miles every night to play guitar at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He wanted to make sure he could buy us food so that we didn’t have to go to sleep on an empty stomach. My mother would clean entire office buildings at night by herself. At times taking my sisters to help her just so we would be able to pay rent. No one in my family has graduated from a 4our-year university and, unfortunately, some of my siblings had to dropout of high school at my age. I intend on changing that. Growing up as a first generation United States Citizen, I owe it to my parents to become the best man I can be and to fight for the American Dream they did not have growing up.
YPI has been an important part of that fight in many ways. I have attended a school run by YPI since the 9th grade– Sylmar Biotech Health Academy. Throughout my attendance at Sylmar, I have been a participant in YPI’s GEAR UP program which focuses on college awareness and readiness. Throughout high school, YPI offered me tutoring in both English and Math. And perhaps most importantly, they have opened up my eyes to pursuing higher education. They’ve done this through college counseling and taking me along with other students on college tours. I visited USC, UCSB, CalPoly Pomona and many others. Having this opportunity to visit these schools and see and talk to other Latinos has made college seem like a real possibility. It’s not a far-fetched thing to me anymore.
YPI has also galvanized my love and interest in science and engineering. Two years ago, I attended my first science competition which was hosted by YPI. I was part of a team consisting of three individuals. We were tasked with designing and building the fastest and highest flying rocket in under 60 minutes. We were competing against other teams from other schools made up of five to six people. They wore fancy lab coats while my team of three strong wore raggedy shoes. When they started the clock, we looked at the materials in front of our tables and remembered what my YPI mentor–Gene Viloria–had said: “Let’s have fun and make a really good rocket.” We did just that and–to our surprise–we won 1st place!
Through tutoring, college counseling and offering the first science competition I had ever attended in high school, YPI has helped me grow into the man I am today. They have taught me that even if the cards are stacked against you, work hard and just go for it because you can surprise yourself.
I’m proud of a lot of things I have accomplished in high school. Highest on my list is the creation of Safe-Way: a software system a few fellow students, my engineering teacher and I designed that alleviates homelessness. The system provides available resources to individuals who are facing, or are in danger, of becoming homeless. For example– personal and professional development seminars, food pantries and social workers. What we designed focuses on connecting individuals to resources they need so that they can be reintegrated into society. We were inspired to create Safe-Way because of our own personal experiences with this sad reality. My family and I were homeless for a brief amount of time. Safe-Way garnered us a silver medal at the Los Angeles Engineering Competition qualifying my team to compete at the State Championship for Engineering Design.
The project started to get recognized by several sectors of the media and also garnered the attention of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti who invited us to present our design at the Mayor’s Mansion for Earth Day. We ended up winning 1st place. Additionally, a few weeks later we were invited to present to members of the L.A.U.S.D Board of Directors where we were subsequently recognized by the Superintendent for our outstanding work that impacts not only our community but potentially the nation.
Although I was facing a difficult situation at home– my parents were struggling to make ends meet–I continued to work hard academically and leaned on the tutoring and mentorship support from YPI. My effort and hard work did not go unnoticed. I was nominated by my high school to apply for the Warren G. Christopher Scholarship– an award given to the top 15 sophomores in L.A.U.S.D who are facing adversity but who manage to overcome it. With little hope I applied and–to my surprise– I was awarded a $20,000 Scholarship which will go towards my college education.
And one last point of pride. My sophomore year, I applied for a summer internship to an international biotechnology engineering company called Abbott Laboratories. I was accepted to their competitive national program this past summer of 2018. Out of the 2,500 students that applied, only 38 were accepted. I learned about blood diagnostic machines and neuro modulation. I also made many new friends who have continued to encourage me and support me through difficult times.
My future goal is to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science software development after I graduate high school. I will also continue the development of Safe-Way so that it can be implemented not only in the United States but abroad.
The pursuit of knowledge should be available to everyone regardless of their resources or the statistic that they fall under. YPI has been a stepping stone that has made me believe it’s possible to pursue higher education. F.D.R said it best “We cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can always build our youth for the future.” Thank you to my YPI counselors, Ms. Janeth and Ms. Santana. I am so grateful for your help in preparing me to tackle the future.